Donald Trump Ushers In A New Era of Populism
Election night confirmed a long-held suspicion. This whole electoral cycle has been a lesson in humility for pundits overconfident in the reliability of data forecasting, broadcast from the Twilight Zone.
That said, the profundity of it is staggering, even for skeptics like myself. This was not a runaway victory for Trump. Yet, because the forecasts were so very wrong, it certainly feels like a mandate.
In the coming days, shattered political scientists are sure to grapple with that, because the other narrative which is emerging is existential crisis inducing.
It’s been obvious from the start of this cycle that ideological conservatism in the style of Barry Goldwater was dead. But the election of Trump represents the third crowing of the cock and the GOP’s public repudiation of classical liberalism.
Donald Trump is a 19th century left-wing populist who ran on economic nativism and class tensions. And his election suggests this ideology broadly resonates with the electorate. The classic divide between left and right no longer exists. It was grounded fundamentally in a disagreement over whether local or federal agencies were more effective at balancing the tensions between protecting public resources and individual rights. Populist thought is enthusiastically for federal control. The conclusion which must be drawn is transformational, but unavoidable: both major parties in American politics are now pro-government.
In his excellent book The Age of Reform, which details the populist convulsions which spread political tumult throughout the antebellum South and the Midwest through the progressive movement of the 20th century, historian Richard Hofstadter lays out the tenets of this philosophy: “the conception of history as conspiracy; an obsessive concern with the fabulous enjoyments deemed to be the lot of the plutocrats; cynicism about the two-party system; the notion that the world is moving toward and immense apocalypse; the exclusive attention to the greed and other personal vices of bankers and other selected plutocrats as opposed to a structural analysis of the social system; anti-Semitism and xenophobia; the appeal to the native simplicity and virtue of the folk.”
Hofstadter seems prescient; many of these qualities were not only central to Trump’s appeal to voters, but they are the qualities which supports cited as reason for their enthusiasm. So how is it that Trump could invoke the spectre of William Jennings Bryan and succeed where the much-more-artful rhetorician failed?
Bryans, a rabid free-silverite, is best remembered for his defiant speech at the Populist Party convention of 1862 in which he advocated many reforms which the progressives would later adopt, including the institution of the secret ballot and the implementation of a hierarchical income tax.Championing a white, largely rural population which had been burned by immigrants whose presence and whose work on symbols of the industrialism like the railroad which seemed a direct threat to the agrarian idealism of Jeffersonianism, Bryan declared “You shall not crucify mankind on a cross of gold!” This was a reference to America’s rigid non-fiat currency, the rigidity and shortage of which was responsible for the cyclical boom-and-bust economy of the time period which further threatened the traditional way of life of America’s everyman.
Despite having heavy appeal in the Midwest, the populists never amounted to much more than a fringe movement nationally. Political scientists cite their unhinged emotionalism and radical policy proposals as a reason for this. Even in state and local races where populists were elected, their hazy policy proposals led to their failure and the quick death of the movement.
Yet, Trump, whose call to “Make America Great Again” appeals to the same elements of fear for survival which the modern middle class sees in increasing globalism, has succeeded. As threat of recession looms and modern politics increasingly focuses on social justice initiatives which attempt to appease wrongs done to non-white demographic blocks, the same efficacy has seized the country. Trump’s victory demonstrates that, unlike the original populist movement, these fears exist across traditional political and even regional divides.
Trump’s populism does not make an enemy of big industry and promise a return to agrarianism; it merely promises a return of domestic manufacturing. Unlike Bryan, whose rhetoric was built on a stark us-versus-them divide between the always malevolent elites and the always put-upon everyman, Trump has bragged about his wealthy and his attainment of it by exploiting the system.
In a breathtaking upending of political normalcy, Trump has successfully positioned his establishment ties into proof that the system is corrupt and suggested his highlighting of this has led to a relentless attack of the elites, which has promoted a very sincere sense of fraternalism between himself and blue collared workers across the nation.
This, then, is not just the end of the party system as it has existed, but also a completely new political ideology which has been born. Whether this nascent movement can survive the rigors of national politics or whether it, like other populist movements, will prove viable remains to be seen.